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OPINION13 August 2018

The power of the everyday

Brexit Leisure & Arts Opinion Public Sector Technology Trends UK

Researchers and strategists can no longer afford to simply be experts in categories – they must also get better at applying a cultural lens to their work and thinking, says Hanna Chalmers.

As the daughter of a leading proponent of cultural studies in the UK, I grew up discussing and deconstructing TV, music, youth culture and style in the way the most obsessive of football fans discuss the premiership and the transfer window. So it’s in my blood.

Now, as a senior director at Ipsos Mori, working at the intersection of media, tech and brands, it’s evident that there has never been a more critical time to put cultural understanding at the heart of our thinking as researchers. This is because despite having more data on people than ever before, we live in increasingly complex and unpredictable times that are really difficult to make sense of. 

It was the surprise Brexit vote, and subsequent fall-out, which forced a reappraisal, amongst researchers across all disciplines, of how we interpret the world around us. Indeed, our Ipsos Mori analysis, undertaken after the EU referendum, revealed that the biggest drivers for voting for Brexit were in fact cultural (namely nativism, and everyday tensions and anxieties around immigration).

These cultural tensions are leading to a retreat into tradition in the UK, into what feels safer, more familiar and more trustworthy – 49% of people in the UK would ‘like our country the way it used to be’ ( 59% of Brexit voters), 60% of us feel the world is changing too fast and 81% of us think that traditions are an important part of society (Ipsos Global Trends Survey). The divisive nature of Brexit has underlined the importance of taking the time to explore and empathise with the cultural values of people across as wide a social spectrum as possible.

Several decades of globalisation and internet have given birth to a ‘proliferation effect’; culture is now shaped by the multiple imprints of vast numbers of producers, users, creators and consumers and is constantly morphing, being assembled and dismantled. And since it is our cultural values that define and inform how we view ourselves, how we view others, how we think, vote and how we behave, a focus on culture, or ‘cultural analysis’, is a tremendously powerful way of making sense of a world that feels increasingly complex and unpredictable.

It’s noticeable that over the last 12 months, many of the questions our clients are asking us are related to this idea of how best to decipher the new cultural landscape. Cultural analysis, when done well, can be transformative across categories and industries. We’ve used it to help Mars tap into new markets in Brazil. We’ve undertaken cultural analysis to help Public Health England, helping to nudge people into healthier ways of living and also to help inform communications from the Economist to better engage a female audience.

In fact, as researchers and strategists, we need to get better at applying a cultural lens to all of the questions our clients approach us with. It should inform all of our work and thinking, because cultural analysis can provide answers other approaches might miss or overlook. For example, when thinking about why the teen birth rate in England has never been lower, examining the culture of teenagers in the 21st century could prove more illuminating than examining the efficacy of public health messages alone. We can no longer afford to simply be experts in the categories we’re focused on. We all need to become better at joining the dots, between the world we observe and inhabit on a day-to-day basis and the questions our clients are asking us or the data we are interpreting, whether that’s in media, healthcare or FMCG research.

The cultural theorist Raymond Williams famously said ‘culture is ordinary’. It follows then, that we all need to take the time to listen and observe the mundane and seemingly inconsequential that makes up people’s everyday lives in order to fully understand the lens through which they view the world and participate as citizens and consumers.

Agencies need to create time and space for researchers to both reflect on and discuss the meaning of everyday experience because it makes us better at what we do. And for researchers, the message is that we need to remain ever curious about the world we inhabit – we shouldn’t ‘switch off’ once fieldwork is done. At the same time, we ought not to forget that when we are analysing outputs from our research we will tend to view them through our own cultural lens, one which is shaped, in part, by the rather homogenous, London-centric industry we all work in. This too is something that we need to address as an industry; our lack of diversity only hampers our ability to understand the landscape we inhabit. 

Taking more time to observe and reflect on the new cultural landscape will only make us all better researchers. We can’t all be cultural analysts, but we do, as an industry, need to acknowledge the centrality of culture, and its complexity, in shaping the world we live in. Building cultural relevance, for whatever brand or category we work with, must be the ultimate ambition for us all.

Hanna Chalmers is senior director at Ipsos Mori

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